By Jeff Walsh
Betty DeGeneres was retired and golfing before her life changed. After her daughter, Ellen, came out on national television on her ABC sitcom, Betty's life moved in a new, unexpected direction.
Betty is now the first non-gay spokesperson for National Coming Out Day, which is celebrated every year in October. And next month, Betty DeGeneres will add another title to her resume: author.
"Love Ellen: A Mother/Daughter Journey" is coming to a bookstore near you, just in time for Mother's Day, and according to its author: "It's going to cover a lot of territory."
Even though Ellen came out publicly back when Tinky Winky was still in diapers and didn't even have his own purse, Ellen came out privately to her mother 20 years ago.
"I was ignorant as can be," Betty recalls. "It's a process. Very few families can celebrate it and say it's wonderful. You have to go through a process. I did."
But she said Ellen's sexuality never prevented them from remaining close.
"We've always been incredibly close," she said. "We have had a lot of things happen in our lives that made us closer all the time, which will be in the book."
For people who saw the excellent British documentary "The Real Ellen Story," you know how Ellen and the network, and later on, Anne Heche, went through the controversy. Betty's book will shed some light on that period, as well as what it's like to be the mother of the nation's current controversy, causing televangelists who would later out purple children's show characters pronouncing your daughter's last name as "Degenerate."
"It brings out the mother tiger instinct to tear their eyes out, but that's not very motherly," Betty recalled. "It was very tough, because she went through a very tough time. The coming out was great, the show was great. It did a world of good and she wouldn't change it for a thing and that's why she did it, so young people will see that who they are is fine."
Betty appeared with Ellen on PrimeTime Live with Diane Sawyer, where Ellen discussed her sexuality for the first time on television, after proclaiming "Yep, I'm Gay" the same week on the cover of Time magazine. It was after that interview when Betty decided to be an activist.
"The response I got after that interview was amazing, and Ellen was the one who said 'Maybe there's something you could do to help.' And sure enough, there was, and it feels like my mission in life, it truly does," Betty said. "I'm doing on a national level what so many parents are doing locally in PFLAG. There are plenty of supportive parents."
Betty also supported her daughter during the tumultuous season following the coming out episode, when even gay activists said the show was too gay (Face it, Chastity, you did).
"Ellen went through a tough time from when she knew the show would be cancelled and they wouldn't give the official word," Betty said. "It was a hard time for her, so it was naturally a hard time for me. But she has come out of it beautifully, she's doing movies and HBO specials and talking about another TV show. She's not going to rush, but it will happen."
This month, Ellen can be seen in her first movie role since her sitcom ended, as a manic TV producer in Ron Howard's "EdTV." The role showcases the quirky humor that made Ellen famous, in a movie that should attract a lot of attention. At a recent test screening in San Francisco, Ellen continually drew laughs every time she appeared onscreen.
Betty is also supportive of Ellen's soulmate in Anne Heche, who lights up the screen in every movie she appears. Betty said she hadn't been close with Ellen's past lovers, "but she's never had a relationship like this. It's very special."
Ellen even faced an uphill battle in dating Anne Heche. The two appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show together for an uncomfortable hour. Many people doubted Heche was a lesbian, since she had dated men before Ellen. Of course, here we are just a short time later and even the religious right have come around on the issue, putting ads in major newspapers proclaiming that people can change their sexuality.
Heche was then put under a microscope, since she had just signed up as a romantic leading lady opposite Harrison Ford in Six Days, Seven Nights. Would audiences buy that they were in love? Actually, most wouldn't, but everyone agrees it was just a poorly written movie, and that Heche held her own against Ford.
But the whole notion of Heche saying she was a lesbian to advance her career (as some people charged) seemed rather preposterous.
"Since when do you advance your career by being gay all of the sudden? Excuse me? Hello? That is not what you do," Betty said. "Anne went through a tough time, too, with people deciding they knew what was going on and saying all these dumb things, but you learn to ignore that."
Betty spent most of 1998 on the road, meeting with people, hearing their stories, changing their lives because she comes across as -- a mom.
"I heard so many inspiring stories this last year, some wonderful and hopeful and so many sad. One of the most moving was one of the first stories I heard from a man I met at a party in Los Angeles, right after that Diane Sawyer interview," Betty recalled. "He said his mother called him from Ohio and she said if that woman can say that on national TV, I guess you and I can talk. And a funny one was when I was walking through Bloomingdale's and two women saw me coming and one grabbed the other one and said, 'It's her, it's her mother.' Then she grabbed me and said, 'You're her mother.' Of course, I agreed, and we never even said her name."
Another one of her favorite stories involved a young, African-American pharmacist from Dallas, Texas, whom she met at Oklahoma City's gay pride parade.
"He said he agonized over telling his mother, he just didn't know how he was going to do it," she recalls. "And finally, he was sitting there with her and he couldn't find the words and he got up and got in the closet and closed the door. He said, 'What am I doing?' She said, 'You're in the closet.' And then he kicked open the door and she said 'Oh.' She got it and she was fine with it."
That is one difference between Betty and most parents of queer children, she never has to worry about coming out about her daughter.
"I'm so grateful that I don't have to make that choice," she said. "I don't have to worry about it at all, I'm Ellen's mom. Everybody knows, it's just there. To me, anything I can do to speak out for fairness is what I must do for any of my children, to enable them to live free and safe and above all, to be happy. "
DeGeneres targets parents with her activism, playing to her strengths as being a mother who loves her daughter. During her speeches across the country, she delivers her prescription about coming out, which includes three steps:
"First, remember what really matters, for all families that is the unconditional acceptance, love and support for each other. When a child, parent or sibling comes out, they're not changed at all. They're simply giving you their own gift of honesty and love and asking that you begin to understand.
Second, be patient. Whether gay or straight, we all need time to think, reflect and prepare. Before we blurt out words we later wish we hadn't said, we should stop and really listen to each other. For straight family members, this is the time we begin to come out ourselves.
Finally, celebrate your coming out. The first step demands courage, but every step that follows is exhilarating and rewarding. Find out personally how much better your life can be, how close your family and friends will become and how strong you feel once you have embraced the truth.